Whiting Out A Desert Near You

by Supa Star Smurf

We start with a piece of sand
A boy alone in an empty theater
Floating through the air
Like the head of Ichabod.
Then We bring hundreds more
Warriors at the gates of dust
Bricklayers staring at a clay wall
Directions written on cracked earthgrids.
We decide to invite thousands
An urban sprawl of alkaline
A square block in a New York desert
A stadium of pulsing dirt hooligans.
And suddenly we’re in the millions
A crowded briefcase of greenbacks
A clamoring of dots on Earth’s monitor
A warring tribe invading the peaceful air
Our Dust.
Our Playa.
Coming soon.
Whiting out a desert near You.

And the Dust Will Make You Free

by Michael Dees

Sitting in an open sided tent with several newfound friends, we hear the dreaded words from across the 275 Plaza, “Dust storm coming!” We all look up and see that the mountains to the west have disappeared. Almost as if by magic, faces all around me have been transformed into a sea of dust masks and goggles. Even people seemingly with no visible means of concealing such devices on their persons are suddenly equipped for whatever the desert has to throw at them

It’s nearing sundown, so Bill heads directly across the playa at top speed to start our dinner. I’m pulling Tessa C. Horse, so have to ride much slower to keep from breaking her flapping wings off – one wing has already suffered from my exuberant pedaling and amateur welding skills.

I don my protective gear and strike out toward The Man. The city is in the shape of a giant “C”, with the statue in dead center, and my camp is exactly opposite from my present location. Within a minute that landmark is no longer visible, nor is anything else more then five feet in front of me. The blindness and disorientation is worse than in any snowstorm whiteout I’ve ever encountered. My eyes and lungs are well protected, so I perceive no real danger, and decide to extract the most from this encounter with nature.

I continue pedaling in what seems like a straight course to The Man. After a few minutes I hear sounds dead ahead, and people start appearing in my small bubble of visibility. I ask one of these apparitions where we are. “Two-fifty and Esplanade,” he calls back. I have made nearly a complete U-turn and am only 25 degrees further around the inner circle than where I started. I again head out toward what my internal compass tells me is the center of the playa. Three more times I discover the wind has turned me back, advancing me only 15 or 20 degrees around the city. Visibility is now up to 15 feet, and I can sense more shadows around me. A bikini clad woman trudges by with only her hands to protect her from the choking cloud. I offer her a spare dust mask I carry for just such an occasion, and am rewarded with the upper half of a grateful chalky smile and a heart felt, though muffled, “Thank you.”

A little further into this wonderland of dust I hear the faint beating of a drum. Is this some lone minstrel lost in the storm and calling to his mates? Is he using his instrument like a foghorn in the mist to keep from being run over by blinded bicyclists like myself? Drawing closer I realize it’s a lively tune he’s playing for the pure joy of it. Evidently I’m not the only one attracted by his music – a half dozen people are happily dancing around him, and others are joining in as they are drawn to this circle of life in the middle of utter desolation. No one seems to care that they can barely see those opposite them in the ring – they’re just happy to celebrate life anywhere and in any way that they can.

I’m again reminded that there are no islands in this Floating World, but a continuous network of bridges connecting all of us in ever changing patterns and groupings. The bridges here demand no emotional or monetary toll of those wishing to use them, but the travelers gladly contribute their talents to enhance the enjoyment of those around them.

I continue my trek, wondering what other amazements this storm has to offer. I don’t have to travel far to find out. Here in front of me, in the middle of a desert are two young ladies casually sitting on an overstuffed sofa – one dressed as a belly dancer, the other as a mermaid, compete with shells covering strategic parts of her body. Both are wearing elaborately decorated and bejeweled dust masks and ski goggles as if these are a normal part of their daily wardrobe. A detached wheel leans against the front of the couch, conjuring up the image of two ladies waiting in their disabled car for the auto club to come and rescue them. After talking with them and inspecting their living room furniture, this image turns out to be very close to the truth. This is a motorized love seat that threw a wheel and was abandoned by its owner while he retrieved some supplies from his camp. The ladies had chanced upon this meager haven from the wind and decided to wait out the storm in relative comfort rather than fighting their way through it. When the owner returned with his tools, old crumpled straw hat, and dust caked face, the image of a back country shade tree mechanic assisting stranded motorists came sharply to view.

Even the ladies’ sedentary resolve didn’t deprive them of the wonders to be found in a Burning Man dust storm. As we talked, a large white figure emerged from the murk – a man well over six feet tall wearing a long, flowing wedding gown, a half-face respirator, and ski goggles. He stood with his train billowing in front of a huge fabric art display mimicking the dress’ action, looking like an ad for Bride’s Magazine on the planet Dune.

Visibility is variable now as the wind depletes one source of buff colored ammunition, and then quickly finds another supply to throw at us. In a brief moment of clarity I can see Pod Village in the distance, and am able to regain my bearings toward home. To my left is a man dressed only in a respirator, ski goggles, tennis shoes, and the suit he was wearing at birth. Pedaling a little further, I can feel the storm waning a bit and am almost sorry to see it go.

I ask myself, “What other unique experiences could I enjoy from this unbridled burst of nature, so unavailable anywhere else in my world?” Three minutes later a sight never before seen on this planet makes its dramatic appearance – a naked man riding a bicycle pulling a seahorse with one flapping wing across a wind whipped prehistoric lake bed. Funny how I had never before noticed that spring wire protruding from the seat of my bike.

When I arrive back at camp Bill can’t (or doesn’t want to) believe his eyes, and stands there laughing his head off. “Why?” he asks between snorts. “For the hell of it!” I reply. Covered with a uniform layer of fine dust, he says I look like I’ve been in a talcum powder fight and came out the loser.

I can confidently say I have extracted all I could from this heaven sent dust storm. I started this journey across the playa as a spectator on a bicycle inconvenienced and blinded by the weather. Through my brief glimpses of improbable reality in the belly of the storm I saw joy where there should have been desperation. I saw beauty where one would expect only sun-cracked earth. I experienced the inner warmth of helping someone in need. I saw people reveling in the harshness rather than cursing the skies. And I learned once again that happiness in living comes from enjoying and learning from the journey no matter where it takes you. Attitude is everything!

Emerging from this baptism by dust, I felt like a full-fledged citizen of Black Rock City, and open to anything my stay here might teach me. I’m reminded of the words of the great philosopher and songwriter Roger Miller – “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo heard, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”

The wind that brought us this dust storm has one more surprise in store. Its higher strata have nudged some welcome clouds between the sun and Black Rock City. While enjoying the coolness, the first thunderclap takes everyone by surprise, likely thinking someone has fired off one of the many propane canons usually reserved for roistering on the open playa. But it’s real this time. As the leading edge of the rain makes its way across the city I can hear a continuous roar of thankful screams, like waders in the shallow waters of a gently sloping beach rejoicing when a wave lifts them in turn on its way to the shore. I see people standing outside with their arms wide and faces to the sky, hoping for a shower long and hard enough to wash at least the top layer of playa from their dust covered bodies. What we get instead is just enough to coagulate the uniform coating into a semi-regular pattern of splotches, which would later become the universal identifier of burners’ cars as they made their trek back home. But even this short cloudburst is just enough to cleanse the air in preparation for the brilliant golds, oranges and reds that fill the western sky as the sun offers up its last gifts of the day. Eating our dinner of half-pound hamburgers and baked beans while sitting in the van, the open double doors frame the sunset like a canvas done by an artist who has squeezed too much paint onto his pallet and feels obligated to use it all up. I feel this whole sequence of weather must have been choreographed just for me, and I am truly grateful to the director.


by Michael Dees

This was my second trip to the playa, but the first one that really counted. When my best friend and I experienced the Burning Man community in 2000, I never really “got it.” I had read that everyone was supposed to be a participant, but it never really sunk in what that meant. We had constructed a simple plywood cutout cartoon dog to pull behind our tandem bike, with a small ghetto blaster playing “Who Let the Dogs Out” taped to the tow bar. Pulling it along the Esplanade and down the streets of the city we got plenty of laughs and comments like, “Hey, look out! There’s a mad dog chasing you,” which was exactly our intent when we built it. But still I felt like the dog was basically our entry ticket to the show – it allowed us to observe the endless parade of strange people and even stranger pieces of art. I was still just a spectator.

On our last night there, a Friday night, I almost started to get it. After the weather repeatedly thwarted our attempt at an artistic statement – we had planned to ignite our dog and pull him across the playa in flames (another story in itself) – we finally gave up and had him cremated at one of the small burn platforms. The wind and rain had chilled everyone unexpectedly that night, so the burn platforms were popular gathering places. As we placed our creation on the coals we got a meager round of applause. When he burst into flame we could feel the physical and emotional warmth increasing around the circle. When the lady across from us raised her skirt to warm her backsides, the sum of the evening’s events hit me all at once, and I laughed uncontrollably for the next several minutes. I was deliriously happy beyond what the situation should have called for. Part of me was starting to get it, but I still didn’t consciously understand. We had decided before our trip that we would leave Saturday morning to avoid the choking traffic of the Sunday exodus. We figured “The Burn” would be just another big bonfire, and we had seen plenty of them before. What complete idiots we were to leave before the event’s climax. If we had stuck around just 12 hours more, I might have understood.

When we returned in 2002 I was determined to learn something about myself. I spent three months of my spare time designing and building something I hoped would bring pleasure to others – a bicycle powered seahorse that flaps its wings and sprays water out its mouth. It was a great success. I got big smiles and hugs from almost everyone we met, and I was starting to feel like a real part of the Burning Man community. In talking with many of my new instant friends, I realized they weren’t just a bunch of weirdoes assembled here for my amusement. They were all just like me – an average guy who periodically has to shed the shroud of conformity we’re all forced to wear in public, and see what’s under that calloused exterior. At Burning Man we put on our thinner skins and open up more to strangers because we know we’ll be accepted without anyone even asking who or what we are, much less judging us by our answers. There are no accountants, software developers, fry cooks, or safety consultants here – just people connecting with other people.

On the night of The Burn we put on our finest costumes and further disguise our outside world images. Then the first volley of skyrockets bursts, drawing our attention to The Man, and we automatically emit the OOO’s and AHH’s characteristic of any other fireworks show. But when the Roman candles and fountains within The Man’s skeleton ignite, it somehow becomes more personal, and the passion within the crowd focuses on the doomed figure. But doom and gloom are light years away from this jubilant gathering. As the waterfall of fire cascades from the top of the lighthouse, the crowd is illuminated physically and emotionally. Within seconds The Man is aflame, and the visceral scream of 29,000 people fills the desert night. At that moment the final skin that separates us all is temporarily stripped away, and the emotional plaque that clogs our souls is vaporized. At that moment no one is trying to hide anything – we are all revealing our true inner feelings amplified to many times their normal intensity. Not everyone is experiencing exactly the same thing, but for a short time we are all driven to total personal honesty, and we share its outward effects with all those around us.

The fire tornadoes that march one after another from the Burning Man seem to feed on the raw emotion of the crowd, drawing it out of us even more, and sending it skyward to rejuvenate the heavens. After they launch their precious cargoes, the swirling smoke columns dance with delight to the edge of the crowd, then rise to join their siblings in the clouds above. As the flames die down and the man becomes a pile of coals, we shuffle away to other celebrations. But we are repeatedly drawn back to the ring, feeling its warmth and re-experiencing the elation of The Burn.

The Man may be only wood, metal and lights, but the sense of connectedness and emotional catharsis his destruction brings are very real, and represent the true value in this whole event for me. The fact that this community is a totally artificial environment doesn’t diminish the feelings of good will and personal growth that I will carry back to the real world.

My spirit is alive and well!